Johnny Evers, The Find of the 1902 Season

This article was written by Frank Keetz

This article was published in 1983 Baseball Research Journal

In 1902, a 19-year-old, 110-pound Johnny Evers tried out for his home town professional baseball team. Probably smaller than every player in the league and definitely younger than most of the professional players, Evers was given a tryout along with other hopefuls. He was not on the partial Troy roster published in The Sporting News in February or a complete Troy roster announced in early April in the area press. However, on April 27, Evers appeared in the box score of Troy’s first exhibition game – playing right field! The opponent was the touring black Cuban Giants who defeated the local Trojans 14-9. ” `Jack’ Evers, a South Troy boy, covered the right garden for the State League men in a creditable manner. He pulled down several skyscrapers which looked like safe hits and received a rousing reception from the crowd.” In subsequent exhibition games, his name fails to appear in some box scores. Then, in a May 7 exhibition game he played shortstop for the first time.

Two days later, on May 9, Troy opened its regular season playing visiting Ilion on the local Laureate grounds. Appearing in the box score as leadoff batter was

                                    AB       R         H         PO            A         E

            Evers, SS…….. 3          0           0         3               3           0

A local paper reported, “Evers did not get a hit, and the crowd was disappointed.” Evers’ team lost that opening game before a meager crowd of 300 which “braved the chilly atmosphere.” Despite the presence of four future major leaguers (Edward Hilley, Alex Hardy, Chick Robertaille, and George “Hooks” Wiltse) on that team, Troy would lose many more games, finishing in seventh place.

The youth had been signed to a $60 per month contract by team owner and manager, Louis Bacon. The $60 was more than young Evers ever earned in a variety of unskilled jobs. Bacon had a well-deserved reputation of being a low-paying, yet financially successful minor league team owner. Evers was receiving much less money than most other league players. But it was a chance to play professional baseball.

John Joseph Evers had eight years of education at St. Joseph’s Elementary School and no permanent job but had gained a reputation as a promising player on the many amateur and semi-professional teams in his home town of Troy. He came from a working class Irish family in south Troy, then a thriving upstate New York city. Some of his brothers, his father (a saloonkeeper), and his uncles were all ballplayers. Troy was one of eight upstate New York teams in the compact New York State League. The Class B league was about to start its sixth consecutive season. It was an established minor league with a remarkable degree of stability for 1902 under the strong leadership of its original president, John H. Farrell. A few of its players had gone directly to the major leagues; others reached the majors after further seasoning in the higher Class A minor leagues.

The skinny infielder hit amazingly well in his first year of organized baseball. A left-handed batter, he took advantage of the shallow right-field wall and actually led the league in home runs with ten (even though he hit only 12 in 18 major league seasons). He got his first hit as a professional player in his second game and Troy won its third game 4-3 over Utica when Evers doubled between two other hits during an eighth inning rally. “The ball struck the top of the fence and bounded back into the diamond, knocking the Trojan out of a home run.”

Continuous praiseworthy comments appeared concerning the play of Troy’s shortstop. Most of it referred to his defensive ability. During the first week of the season, the Amsterdam Evening Recorder said, “Evers, who plays shortstop for Troy, is a beardless youth who is said to be 19 years old. He bids fair to develop into a promising professional.” “Evers had eight chances yesterday, and he accepted every one of them.” A week later, “Evers took everything in a graceful way.” A week later, The Sporting News said, “Jack Evers, who is playing short, is conceded by the baseball writers in every city where he has appeared, to be the find of the season. He has more than made good…”

In early June, Troy beat Binghamton 12-6 and “Evers’ work at short, accepting 12 chances, was the feature.” Accolades continued. ” `Little’ Evers grabbed up a number of difficult ones and planked them over to first in fine style” can be found in the Schenectady press. The Evening Recorder in mid-June reported that “Young Evers still keeps up his grand work at short for the Troy club, and his brilliant performances are conclusive proof that the kid is a natural ballplayer, and not an `accident’.” The same paper later said, “For Troy, there is always one player who is always to be found in the game, no matter how the contest is going. Evers. He can hit and field and his appearance calls for a generous reception from the spectators.”

Somewhat less complimentary, an Albany writer wrote that “Troy has a youth of rare promise in Evers, but his career in professional baseball covers less than two months, and he has much to learn.” The same writer said “the premier shortstops of this league are Chick Cargo (of Albany), Dutch Jordan (of Binghamton) and Jim Maguire (of Syracuse).” Cargo and Maguire, age 31 and 27 respectively, had already had brief major league experience. Jordan, 22 years old, would play two seasons with Brooklyn in the future. Evers would play for almost two decades.

Professional baseball has an exciting glamour to it but it is also a very competitive, hard daily grind. Young Evers was tripped by manager Wally Taylor of Utica in the third game of the season. He suffered a “severe wound in the left leg near the knee” when a Syracuse player spiked him in early June but he continued to play. In late June he injured his foot but hit a home run over that right field fence as Troy lost 8-1. In early July, the struggling team won one game in 15 days when “Little Johnny Evers” hit a home run in the 12th inning to beat Utica 4-3. He erred once in 14 chances that day. Reports of his defensive ability continued. “Scarcely a day passes without Evers getting away with some almost impossible stunt. Evers filled the hole between 2nd and 3rd like a veteran, and his work was certainly the best of any as seen on the local grounds this season. The youngster from the South End got in front of scorching grounders and his throwing to the bases was accurate in every instance.”

He missed playing for five days in late July but returned with a bang. Evers, who had “been out of the game with illness,” hit a home run against Johnstown in his first game back. On August 16 the local press reported that he made three errors in a 4-2 loss to Binghamton but it was learned after the game that “his father was near death’s door.” It was the first time all season that he really played poorly. He then missed about a week of play as his father died on August 21 in his home at 385 Third Street. The funeral, on August 24, was “one of the largest ever witnessed in the city” with nearby St. Joseph’s Church thronged with mourners. Then it was back to work for John Evers, professional baseball player. “Troy won 2-1 in a game replete with sensational fielding. Evers for Troy excelling.”

The young infielder made errors (“Troy lost 9-7 in 11 innings to Binghamton. Errors by Evers and Wiltse responsible.”), but he evidently was able to cover much ground. He had range as well as a good arm. The Syracuse correspondent commented in early August how Evers had 478 chances compared to much lower numbers of two other shortstops who had higher fielding percentages and had appeared in a comparable number of games.

There are no recorded references to the youth’s later well-known combative pugnacious personality. Known in his major league playing days as “the brainiest ballplayer in the business,” he was also called an “insolent, snarling, aggressive grouch” by the New York press. With jutting jaw and chin, he was known as “the crab” on the field. Famed umpire Bill Klem said, “Johnny Evers was the toughest and meanest man I ever saw (in 36 years of umpiring) on a ball field. His tongue knew neither fear nor control when he was crossed, and he thought everybody within eye or ear range was crossing him.” Evers said, “My favorite umpire is a dead one.” Shortly after Evers’ death in 1947, long time respected journalist Fred Lieb described him as a “truculent little gladiator who packed more aggressiveness in his frame than any other player of his size.”

In early September The Sporting News simply reported, “SS Evers of Troy has been sold to the Chicago N. L. team. Has the goods, all right.” A few days earlier, one of his home town papers had reported that he had “been sold to the Chicago N. L. team.” On September 1, the same paper noted that “John J. Evers, Troy’s shortstop, left last night for Philadelphia, where he will join the

Chicago N. L. team.” The youth left from the same railroad station where, a few years later, thousands of local fans would greet him on his return to Troy after completion of the major league baseball season. A day later, it is recorded that he had played in his first major league game, a 6-1 Chicago victory over Philadelphia. The box score simply recorded

                                    AB       R         H         PO            A         E

             Evers, SS……. 5         0          0          0               4          1

The Philadelphia Ledger noted that Evers “played his first game for Salee’s team and put up a fine game. He is very fast on his feet, takes hard hit grounders in great shape and hits the ball hard. He made a good impression on the crowd, and was applauded several times.” Within a week, the Chicago papers praised Evers as “about the coolest man at handling a ball that has ever played on the Smoky City aggregation.” Again, it was his fielding ability that brought special attention – this time from the “big city” reporters in contrast to the reporters in the relatively small upstate New York towns.

Troy manager Bacon knew Chicago manager Frank Salee. When second baseman Bobby Lowe suffered a serious leg injury, Chicago took Evers. Bacon told young Evers to tell Salee that he was being paid $100 per month with Troy. Bacon told Salee if Evers did not make the grade to send him back. If Evers were to make the team, Salee was to send Bacon a $200 purchase price. Salee sent $200.

With Troy that 1902 season, young Evers batted .285 in 84 games. He made 65 errors on the battered minor league diamonds and had a recorded fielding percentage of .880. Yet, erring only once in 97 chances with the Cubs, his fielding percentage jumped to .989 on the major league level. Most of his late season 25 Chicago games were played at second base where the first “Tinker to Evers to Chance” double play occurred on September 15, 1902.

The rest is history. A long fiery, combative career, an integral part of the great Chicago Cub champion teams, principal participant in the1908 Merkle affair, most valuable player in the National League while playing for the 1914 “miracle” Boston Braves, a Hall of Fame plaque at Cooperstown, and lasting immortality as the middle man in the New York Evening Mail sportswriter Franklin P. Adams’ famous poem (“Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”) describing the New York Giants’ plight when they played the Chicago Cubs.

These are the saddest of possible words:

“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear Cubs and fleeter than birds,
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.”